Joshua Fields Millburn, Co-Founder, The Minimalists
Becoming a Minimalist
From the outside looking in, Joshua Fields Millburn had it all.
By his late 20s, he was earning a six-figure salary and living a lifestyle to match. “Luxury cars, closets full of designer clothes, [and] a big suburban house with more toilets than people,” he recalls. At the pinnacle of his corporate career, he was the youngest-ever director of operations for a chain of 150 retail stores in the Midwest.
And then he walked away from it all.
Today, Millburn is co-founder with partner Ryan Nicodemus of The Minimalists, a site dedicated to empowering people to rid themselves of life’s excesses in order to focus on what’s really important.
The two maintain an active blog and podcast, produced a web series and a documentary about minimalism, travel the country delivering talks, and sustain a following that’s 20 million strong.
How did someone who once had such a hunger for material wealth transform into an icon of the simple life?
For Millburn, the outcome has roots in an early life of poverty. But it was a series of painful wake-up calls and a chance encounter on Twitter that convinced him to transform his life’s trajectory, and rewrite his definition of success along the way.
In Pursuit of the American Dream
“I grew up poor,” Millburn says. “Like really, really dirt poor. … I thought the reason we were so discontented when I was growing up is that we didn’t have a lot of money. So when I was 18, I went out and got that corporate job.”
By 19, he was making more money than his parents ever had. He started working his way up the corporate ladder, and before he’d turned 30 he was “sort of living the American Dream.”
But much to Millburn’s surprise, the dream didn’t bring the contentment he’d sought.
He gradually discovered the downsides that came along with his newfound success. Namely? “Stress, anxiety, discontent, overwhelm, and of course, a boatload of debt.”
“I always felt like I was one promotion away … from being happy,” Millburn explains. But as he inched his way up the corporate ladder toward the roles to which he aspired—vice presidents, senior vice presidents, and C-level executives—he realized he might be chasing something that didn’t exist.
“A lot of these guys … were kind of miserable,” he says. “If I spent the next 15, 20, 25 years working my butt off … then maybe I could be just as miserable as them. We all tell ourselves, ‘Yeah, but I’m gonna be different.’ The truth is, if you follow the same recipe, you bake the same cake.”
These observations led Millburn to realize just how much of his identity had become wrapped up in being a ladder-climbing executive.
“[It] got to a point where I felt stuck, because I was so tethered to a lifestyle,” he says. “I realized I was successful in a very narrow sense.” While he had all the outward trappings of success—the income, the house, the expensive trinkets, an actual white picket fence—he didn’t feel successful in a broader sense. He didn’t feel healthy, or content, or like he was rooted in the relationships that mattered to him, or like he was living a meaningful life.
Instead, he felt stuck.
And so he came to realize that “maybe the American dream wasn’t my dream. Maybe, just maybe, it took getting everything I thought I wanted to realize that everything I ever wanted wasn’t really what I wanted at all.”
In Pursuit of a Meaningful Life
“I think we all have these inciting incidents where something wakes us up … [like] a metaphorical car crash,” Millburn says. “For me it was a double car crash.” In a single month, his mother died and his marriage ended.
These experiences inspired Millburn to take a long, hard look at his life. “I was so focused on career … tethered to that, really,” he says. While at the time, he might have paid lip service to his health and writing as two of his life’s biggest priorities, his schedule reflected something different. “Show me your calendar and I’ll tell you what your priorities really are,” he says.
He found himself facing the cold, hard truth: “Maybe I had to do something else if I wanted to live a life that had more meaning and was more broadly successful.”
He began by returning to a passion that had been with him since his early 20s—writing. He started out creating fiction, but soon found himself writing instead about the changes he was making in his own life.
Meanwhile, he encountered the concept of minimalism after joining Twitter in 2009, not long after his series of tragedies. There he ran across entrepreneur Colin Wright, who practiced an exceptionally minimalist lifestyle by owning just enough possessions to fill a single backpack, so he could more easily travel the world.
Millburn knew that wasn’t the specific lifestyle he was looking for, but a lightbulb went off nevertheless. “If I simplify my life, I’m no longer tethered to someone else’s template of success, happiness, [or] contentment,” he realized. He saw minimalism as a pathway to having more time for his health, relationships, community, and personal interests.
So Millburn started writing about his forays into the minimalist lifestyle, and not long after he started theminimalists.com with his best friend, Nicodemus. “The question that started the whole thing,” he says, was “How might your life be better with less?”
As it turns out, the co-founders weren’t the only ones asking this question. The site quickly attracted a substantial readership of people looking to redirect their time and attention in ways that feel meaningful.
As Millburn set to work refining his lifestyle and cultivating his audience, he was still attempting to leave the corporate world. It took him two years to leave and another two years to find the “special kind of freedom” that comes with being debt-free. During that time, he set to work simplifying his life by shedding any possessions that didn’t add value to it.
“Minimalism isn’t about deprivation,” he says. “It’s about getting rid of the excess. … Having too much is not good, but having not enough is also not good.”
Having grown up poor and then making a lot of money in the corporate world, Millburn knows of what he speaks.
While money may not buy happiness, he’s quick to point out that “neither does poverty. Our life can be augmented by the money or the things or the experiences that we have.” What matters most, he says, is to realize that “it all really starts from what’s going on inside.”
For Millburn, happiness may be the wrong metric to use altogether. “I don’t think happiness is the point,” he says.
“I think living a life of meaning is the point.”
What does that mean in practical terms? It’s about “aligning actions with values,” he says. “It’s pursuing meaning in the work that I do, and happiness is a byproduct of that. … For me, success has a lot more to do with ‘Am I growing as an individual and am I able to contribute to other people in a meaningful way?’”
That’s a dramatically different approach from the one he took when he was pursuing the stereotypical American Dream. Ironically, in eschewing the traditional path to “having it all,” Millburn has found it—in his own unique, completely un-stereotypical way.
And therein lies the heart of his message: One dream, most decidedly, does not fit all. Instead, he says, “We have to really define what success means to us. We’ve all been given one life—exactly one life here on earth. And man, we better act accordingly.”
- What the minimalist lifestyle is and how to start living it today
- The key to finding things that give value to your life
- Balancing the hunger entrepreneurs have with the minimalist lifestyle
- What it means to give yourself permission to be happy
Full Transcript of Podcast with Joshua Fields Millburn
Nathan: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Foundr Podcast. My name is Nathan Chan and I’m the CEO of “Foundr Magazine” and host of this podcast. And I’m coming to you from hometown, homegrown, Melbourne, Australia. So, I just wanted to say thank you so much for taking the time to share your earbuds with me. If you’re new the Foundr Podcast, we interview some of the most successful founders and entrepreneurs all around the globe that are either number one or two in their industry, and realy disrupting the space that their company is playing in. And before I jump in and talk about today’s guest, I just wanted to give you a bit of an update on what’s happening in my world.
So, a few exciting things are happening. We’re really scaling up courses in a big way. It’s funny. I’ve never thought, you know, when we started producing this magazine, that we’d get into courses. And we’re not gonna do courses how everyone else is doing courses where, you know, the count…like usually it’s a solopreneur and they teach, and stuff like that. What we’re gonna do is we’re gonna find pretty much practitioners, not gurus, people that are doing really, really, you know, really, really amazing things and getting them to teach, and pretty much do effectively what we’ve done with the magazine covers using our network, and speaking to you guys, finding out what your biggest problems are, finding out what courses you want us to produce, and then going to our network and getting all the people that we’ve interviewed for the magazine to teach courses. So it’s gonna be incredible, I’m really excited. And we have a goal of rolling out 20 courses next year which is exciting.
What else is happening? I’m going on a holiday to Bali soon which is really exciting. It’s gonna be the first time that I’ll take a non-work holiday since I started Foundr, you know, over three years ago, which is crazy. I’ve gone to a lot of holidays but usually work related.
And, you know, another thing that I’ve been doing a lot is I found a new passion, I found a new hobby, and I’ve been doing boxing a lot and going to the gym a lot which is really, really good, and I’m really, really enjoying that. And, yeah, things are going well. We’re on a good growth spurt at the moment with Foundr which is exciting.
So, let’s talk about today’s guest. This one is a bit of a mix up because he’s not your traditional founder that you would think that we would interview, but that’s what makes this one interesting. Like, you know, we get a ton of super successful entrepreneurs and founders. And Joshua, in his own right, has build an incredible business, an incredible movement, and that’s around minimalism.
Now, some of you might have heard of minimalism and living a minimalistic lifestyle. Some of you may have not. They produced an epic documentary that I highly recommend that you watch on Netflix. And I’m guilty of being a consumer myself and, yeah, we really just talk about life and, you know, really talk about what it means to live a minimal life and it doesn’t mean that you have to change up everything. But, in this world right now that we live in, there are more than ever, so many distractions. There’s more than ever like things that you wanna buy that don’t necessarily always add value to your life. And, you know, Joshua, really, it’s a great conversation. All I can say, it’s a great conversation. I think you’ll find this one really interesting. And I’m just gonna leave it at that. But I promise you, after you listen to this one, you will enjoy it. True to the Foundr style, just really great content, if I do say so myself.
If you are enjoying these interviews, please do take the time to leave us a review. If you would like to know more about what we do, just go to foundr.com. And if you would like to check out the shownotes, just go to foundr.com, foundr.com/168. Okay, guys, that’s it for me. Now let’s jump into the show.
All right. So, the first question that I ask everyone that comes on is, how did you get your job?
Joshua: You know, it’s interesting because I don’t think of it as a job really. I mean, I think I kind of used to have a job that morphed into a career in my 20s. I’m 36 years old now, and let’s see. When I was… I grew up poor, like really, really dirt poor, on government assistance and food stamps. And I thought the reason we were so discontented growing up is because we didn’t have a lot of money. And so, when I turned 18, I went out and I got that corporate job, right, that entry level sales job and started climbing the corporate ladder. And I was making good money. By age 19, I was making better money than my parents had and then I started getting promotion in my early 20s.
And by my late 20s, I was sort of living the American dream. I had the six figure salary, the luxury cars, the closets full of designer clothes, the big suburban house with more toilets than people, you know. I really had all the stuff to fill every corner of my consumer-driven life. But I wasn’t really contented with that. I always felt like I was one promotion away in my career from being happy, you know. But I was, of course, I had all these other things that came along with that ostensible success. I had stress and anxiety, and discontent, and overwhelm, and of course, a boat load of debt. Just massive amounts of debt, six figures worth of debt, half a million dollars if you count my mortgage.
I got to a point where I felt stuck because I was so tethered to a lifestyle. And there was this interesting thing that as I was climbing the corporate ladder, I had a whole plan. At one point, it’s sort of the pinnacle of my time in the corporate world. I was the director of operations for 150 retail stores. So, I was basically managing 150 retail stores and all of the employees and the finances, and everything that went along with that in the Midwest in the United States. And, man, as I got closer to the guys I aspired to be like, the vice presidents and the senior vice presidents and the C-level executives, you know, the COOs, CEO, CFO, I realized that a lot of these guys, not all of them, but a lot of them, they were kinda miserable.
And if I worked really hard, if I spend the next 15, 20, 25 years working my butt off, 60, 70, 80 hours a week, then maybe I could be just as miserable as them. And it was only obvious as I got closer, you know. Once you get closer to some kind of flaws, you start to become illuminated. I think we all tell ourselves, “Yeah, but I’ll be different.” But if you follow the same recipe, you’re gonna bake the same cake. And the truth is, I followed their recipe, I was working really hard, I was really good at what I did. And as a result, I was really tethered to that identity. I mean, I think it’s one of the first things we do when we meet a new person, we’ll say, “What do you do?”
And I don’t think we mean anything bad by that question, but we often define ourselves by what our job title is, right? What’s that thing that’s printed on our business card? I’m gonna sum up my entire life in a few short words. You know, for me it was, “Well, I’m the director of operations for this company,” and I was supposed to define who I was as a person. Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with having a job. There’s nothing wrong with working a 9:00 to 5:00, we all have to pay the bills. My problem was my entire life was wrapped up in this identity of being this executive who aspired to be a vice president and then to be a C-level executive.
I had a whole plan mapped out. By 40, I was going to be the COO of this company. And I was well on the way of doing that, I was the youngest director in my company’s history. But I realized that I was successful only in a very narrow sense. I may have looked successful, I had the job title. I had the income, I had the house, and sort of these trinkets of success, but I wasn’t successful in a broader sense. Yeah, I wasn’t healthy. I weighed 80 pounds more than I weigh now. I felt discontented, I felt kinda stuck. I didn’t feel like I was pursuing anything that was a creative endeavor. I didn’t feel like I was living a meaningful life.
I didn’t feel like my relationships were very solid because most of my time was spent…it was really spent in close proximity to people who were closest to me in terms of proximity, but not closest to me in terms of my values, my interests, my beliefs, who the person I wanted to be was. And so, as a result, I sort of projected an image of myself, like I’m this particular guy ready to fulfill this template. And that template was sort of this American dream life, I mean, I literally had a white picket fence. And, man, I realized that that’s an okay template for some people but maybe the American dream wasn’t my dream.
And maybe, just maybe, and so getting everything I thought I wanted to realize that everything I ever wanted wasn’t actually what I wanted at all. It took a moment in my life where I think we all have these sort of inciting incidents where something wakes us up. It jars us enough. It’s almost like a metaphorical car crash. For me, I was a double car crash. My mother died and my marriage ended both in the same month. And those two events forced me to look around and start to question what had become my life’s focus, and it turns out I was so focused on my career. I was so focused on so called success and achievements, and especially on the accumulation of stock. And I was tied, I was tethered to that really.
And, man, maybe I had to do something else if I wanted to live a life that was a bit more rewarding, was more broadly successful. And I knew throughout my 20s, I had written fiction and that was the thing I wanted to do. I always said I wanted to be a writer. I was an aspiring writer. And I think that’s a problem that a lot of the people in your audience will face, they’re an aspiring something, right? They are aspiring entrepreneur, they are an aspiring writer, they are an aspiring podcaster, they are an aspiring entertainment, you’re a person, an actor, whatever it may be, but the problem with that is that just meant I didn’t write very much. I aspired every day but if that’s all what we’re doing, we’re not actually putting in the work.
And so I realized I needed to make some changes in my lifestyle so I could reprioritize my life. If you would have asked me back then what my priorities were, I would have given you lip service on the… I would have said my health was a priority or writing is a priority. But really, I think our priorities are how we spend our days. And so if you show me your calendar, I’ll show what your real priorities are. You show me how you spend your days, whether it’s incessantly checking Facebook or watching television, or, yeah, just checking email, you know, 150 times a day or whatever, the supposedly high level successful people do.
And those are all real priorities and they get in the way of what we aspire to do. And I had to sort of flip that around and turn it to the things that aspired to do someday and to things I wanted to start doing today. And so I started writing a lot more and fiction was really the thing that really stood out to me. But pretty soon, that pivoted into writing about some of the changes I was making in my own life. My best friend and I, we started a website called theminimalists.com, and that was about six and a half years ago. And I was just writing about just non-fiction, about my life and some of the things I was implementing. And people started finding value in that.
And so, what I do today, whether it’s that or The Minimalists Podcast or the documentaries, and everything else, it’s really to add value to other people’s lives. And the thing that I learned most is that if I add value to other people’s lives regardless of the medium, then people are willing to support what you do. So, how did I get my job, the short answer to that is I started adding value to other people’s lives.
Nathan: Interesting. So, tell me how you came across this concept of minimalism.
Joshua: For me, it was Twitter actually. You know, I was kinda just looking for some answers and I was late to social media. I think I joined Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace all in the same day. And this was way in 2009, right after those 2 events happened to me with my mom and my marriage, and I was just sort of looking for answers, like where do I go from here. I know I want to pivot to somewhere, but how do I do it, what do I do. And I ran across a guy named Colin Wright who is this entrepreneur who traveled the world. He moves to a new country every four months. And everything that he owns fit in his backpack.
And while I thought that was admirable, I thought it was really cool that he owns like 52 items. I knew that lifestyle wasn’t for me. I like owning more than 52 items. I like having a couch and a kitchen table. The problem for him is those things would have gotten in the way, right? You can’t fit your kitchen table in the overhead bin of an airplane. And he was moving to a new country every four months and writing about it. He said this thing called minimalism allowed him to pursue what he was passionate about. And that sort of light bulb sort of went off for me. I said, “Well, wait a minute. I’m not passionate about travel like this young guy is. Maybe minimalism can allow me to pursue what I’m passionate about which, for me, was writing.”
And I mean, obviously I have other passions as well. I don’t think any of us were meant to do one thing. I don’t think you were born to be a podcaster or an astronaut, or a yoga instructor, or an accountant. I think there are dozens, if not hundreds of things we can all be passionate about. The secret for me, or the key rather, not the secret, the key for me was discovering something that aligned with my values and my beliefs, and the person I wanted to be. And, for me, that was writing. And I realized that, “Wait a minute, if I simplify my life, if I’m no longer tethered to that other lifestyle, if I’m no longer tethered to someone else’s template of happiness or success, or contentment, then, you know what, I can probably pursue what I’m interested in, these sort of creative endeavors that I’d like to try out.”
But I said, “Well, wait a minute. Maybe this minimalism thing is only for young entrepreneurs who are travelling the world.” And, of course, that ended up not being true. I discovered a bunch of other people, many of whom we interviewed in our documentary. It’s on Netflix called “Minimalism”. We went out and talked to people like Leo Babauta and his wife, Eva. And they have six kids together, they’re a whole minimalist family. And I said wow. You know, at the time I didn’t have any kids and my marriage had just ended. So, I was somewhere in between all of that, right?
I didn’t wanna be the globe-trotting, peripatetic writer like Colin and I didn’t wanna have six kids like Leo. But I knew I’d probably fall somewhere in the middle. And if I wanted to simplify my life, I’d have to look at all of these different recipes, people like Courtney Carver who’s a mother to a teenage daughter, or Joshua and Kim Becker who have a family that lives in the suburbs, and all of these different minimalists had different recipes for minimalism. And if I wanted to simplify my life, I could tease out a few ingredients from each of their recipes and create my own recipe for a more intentional life. Then that’s really where it started with me.
It was basically a question that started the whole thing was how might your life be better with less? And by answering that question, I was really able to identify the purpose of minimalism. It wasn’t just the how-to side of things but the why-to side of things. And I realized that I have more time for my health and my relationships, and solving my finances. I can finally get those under control. Because even though I make good money in the corporate world, I spend even better money. And that’s why I had all that debt because I was constantly shaping someone else’s idea of what I should have, buying things that I didn’t need with money I didn’t have to impress people I didn’t know. And I had to let go of that so that I could pursue what was important to me.
Nathan: So, did you straight away give up your job that you’re working in operations or just kind of it was a slow transition?
Joshua: It was a long transition. And there’s a lot of pain involved in that transition because I had so much debt. I knew that I couldn’t just simply do an about face and turn the other direction, and run away. That would have been irresponsible. You know, completely making a large change without any kind of plan is a recipe for discontent and dissatisfaction. Well, it would have been really nice to just say, “Well, you know, walking to my boss’ office to say, ‘Screw you, I quit, I’m outta here.’ That would have been irresponsible.” And so, I put together a plan and it took me several years. It took me about two years of really, really hard work to leave the corporate world.
And then two more years after that before I was debt free. And so it was about four years total to go down that road of financial freedom which is, you know, a special kind of freedom. Because once we’re no longer anchored to that debt, we’re able to move around a lot more freely. We gain back this sort of mobility and this ability to also tell it how it is, right? I mean when we’re beholden to other people, other stakeholders or, you know, people who sort of dangled this check over your head, you don’t really have the autonomy that you would like to have. And we’re all gonna have responsibilities. You know, I have responsibilities to other types of people now.
We have a large audience of about 20 million people in total, whether it’s the podcast, the documentary, or the essays that we write on our blog. But my responsibility is to them and it’s not to one single person who’s able to, you know, stop everything from happening. And so, the difference now is my actions align with my values. And for me, that’s been the key to contentment in what I’m doing. And it’s no longer just pursuing happiness, right? It’s pursuing meaning in the work that I do, and happiness is really a byproduct of that.
Nathan: I see. So, when it comes to living, I guess, with a minimalist lifestyle, can you talk me through how someone could get started and then also, I’m really curious around, you know, how much stuff do you own right now?
Joshua: Certainly, yes. So, for me, it really did start with that question I asked a second ago, how might your life be better with less? And the reason that question is so important, it helps you identify what the benefits of simplifying your life would be for you, and they might be different for you than they are for me. And so, the reason that’s so important, it gives you the leverage you need to keep going. I think we all instinctually know how to declutter our closets, right? We all understand, yeah, you’re not gonna see me or Ryan write something, the 65 tips on how to declutter your kitchen or something. I mean just because… That, to me, is kind of trite and vapid. I’m much more concerned with the why.
Nathan: The mindset.
Joshua: What’s the purpose? Yeah, exactly. How do I change that mindset? How do I keep going when times get tough? And for me, originally, it was the benefit of financial freedom, regaining that control. But then I started uncovering all these other really interesting and cool, and exciting benefits. The benefits like I could spend time with the people I actually wanna spend time with, the people closest to me, like my primary relationships. It used to be I’d spent 90% of my time with people who were sort of acquaintances, co-workers, networking buddies, executives.
They weren’t necessarily bad people but it meant that I would necessarily forsake the people closest to me because I had only 10% of my time left. And so I reprioritized my relationships, that was a great benefit. And more time for things like writing or other creative endeavors. I had the ability to finally contribute in different ways to my community, whether that was soup kitchens or food banks, or donating money to charity. And, you know, in the last six years, Ryan and I have done a lot of cool stuff with our platform and it’s one of… Really the most important things for me to live a meaningful life, and it sounds cliché, but giving is living. And I found ways to be able to give that I couldn’t before because I’ve inspired other people to help us give.
So, we’ve built an orphanage on the U.S.-Mexico border, we built clean water wells in Malawi. We funded a high school for a year. We built an elementary school in Laos. We helped some of the victims of a terrorist attack in Orlando, Florida last year. And so, these are different ways that we can contribute. And I don’t do it just for myself, it’s not just for other people, it’s not 100% altruistic, I do it for myself as well. I mean I feel good when I’m able to contribute and it benefits other people. And so, it’s really been a win-win for me. And I’ve had more time and resources to do that now. And when I say resources, I obviously don’t just mean money because I don’t make the same money I did in the corporate world.
We have other resources that are more important than money, our time and our attention are the two most precious resources we have. And, quite often, we did give those up willy-nilly right? We’re constantly checking Instagram or something. And Instagram is a tool, we can use it, but we can also get lost in the glowing screen that’s in front of us, and forsake the things that are most important that are around us. And I think by letting go, we’re able to start… Once we deal with that external stuff, the clutter in our lives, that’s a really a physical manifestation of what’s going on inside.
And so if we deal with what’s going on outside, we start dealing with this emotional clutter, the mental clutter, spiritual clutter, this internal clutter, the financial clutter, all these other types of clutter that are going on in our lives. And so when I first embraced minimalism, I was 28 years old and my life looked appreciatively different from what it does today. And so, the next question I asked after, how might your life be better with less is, does this thing add value to my life? And I started asking that about all the things in my house. So, I was an average American, and the average American household has about 300,000 items in it.
And so I had to start letting go of some of it, and the way I did that was asking that question over and over and over. Does this thing add value to my life? But, of course, now at age 36, I have a 4-year old, actually my partner, Rebecca, is giving her a bath right now, we just finished up dinner, and I realized that the things that added value to my life at age 28 are different from the things that add value to my life now. So, it’s a continual pursuit. It’s not like I could give you a list of, “Well, here are the 100 items you should own, and then you will be happy.” I wish I could do that, that would be so much easier. But the truth is that the things that added value at 28, they may stop adding value tomorrow or the next day and the next day, and so I have to keep asking that question.
And then, of course, I ask that same question when I bring new things into my life. If I’m buying something new for Ella, our four-year old, then I have to figure that out. If I’m bringing something new into my life, is this actually gonna add value to my life? And so, that’s an important question. And then for anyone who’s in your audience who is thinking about simplifying, I found that decluttering for me was a bit boring. And so Ryan and I at The Minimalists, we figured out a way to make it a little bit more fun with some friendly competition. We call it the 30-Day Minimalism Game. And you can find all the details to that over at our website, theminimalists.com/game.
So, basically, the way it works is you partner up with someone, a friend, a family member, a co-worker, and over the course of one month, you decide to get rid of some stuff. It’s a friendly competition. So, the first day of the month you each get rid of one item. Second day of the month, two items. Third day of the months, three items. It starts off really easy to get you that momentum you need because we’re all overwhelmed with stuff, we don’t even know where to start. You got to start somewhere. But by the middle of the month, it starts to get more difficult. So, you can bet whatever you want that month, you can bet a nice dinner or a dollar, or a large sum of money, whatever you wanna bet.
And by the middle of the month, you said, “Okay, today is day 15. I’m gonna get rid of 15 items. Day 20 is 20 items. But tomorrow, I have to go to 21 items.” Whoever goes the longest in the month wins. If you both make it to the end of the month, you’ve both won because you’ve gotten rid of about 500 items, so that’s a pretty good start towards simplifying your life.
Nathan: I see. And when it comes to living a minimalist lifestyle, one thing I’m really curious around because, please understand, Joshua, I’m probably…would be considered a consumer, like I love tools, gadgets. I think Kickstarter is cool so I buy things that I probably don’t need. So this is like…this is really helpful for me. You know, you talked about you’re looking at your desk, and I’m looking at my desk right now. I’m at my home office while I’m speaking to you, and it is a little cluttered. It’s not too bad, but there is a little bit of stuff everywhere. But I’ve got, you know, these two big, you know, super expensive 27, or whatever it is, the biggest iMax screen that I can get alongside each other. I’m curious, like, for me, who is someone with like a passion for technology and gadgets, and stuff, like how do I work through that, you know?
Joshua: Yeah. Well, a few things. One is I don’t think there’s anything wrong with consumption. I think we all need some stuff, right? And I would argue that consumption isn’t the problem. The problem is really compulsory consumption. We see upwards of 5,000 advertisements every single day. Those advertisements compel us to buy things that not only we don’t need, but things that don’t add value to our lives. So, I tend to break things into a couple of different piles. We have essentials, we have non-essentials, and we have junk. And most of us, most of the stuff we bring into our life is junk, right?
Some of it, it doesn’t really add value. It has some sort of perceived value at some point in time. We buy it because we think we can afford it because, quite often, we just look at the price tag of the thing. And so we might be able to afford the, you know, whatever widget we want to buy. But we don’t think about all the other costs. I mean, first off, you put it on the credit card, you can’t afford it, right? That’s debt. And there’s no such thing as good debt because that prevents us from being free in some way. And so, of all these other costs that are sort of embedded in the items that we don’t think about.
There’s the cost of storing the thing, taking care of the thing, cleaning the thing, replacing the thing, changing the things, batteries or changing the things, oil or putting gas in the thing, recharging the thing, worrying about the thing, right? So there are all these other costs. The cost of the space the thing takes up or the storage locker that we had to put the things in when we get too many things in our life. And these are the real costs, the actual costs of owning a thing. It goes way beyond the price tag. Now, that said, if many of the things in our life are junk, you know, probably close to 90% of the things that are in many of our lives are junk, there are still two other piles there.
There’s the true essentials, the things that I absolutely need in my life. Those things are few and far between, but there’s some things that… You need your computer that’s in front of you. But then there are the other things that add value to your life, yeah, I think those things are important as well. They enrich our lives. You know, we might call these things wants versus the junk. There are some things that you don’t truly need but they add value to your life, and I’d say there’s nothing wrong with that, that those things are what makes life interesting or passionate, or just gives us the ability to do something else other than, you know, twiddle our thumbs all day.
I embrace technology, I’m not a Luddite. I’m talking to you right now on a smartphone, right? And I have a computer at home. And what I’ve realized is that I don’t wanna deprive myself. Minimalism isn’t about deprivation. It’s about getting rid of the excess so the things that I own, this is a weird paradox of minimalism actually, I get far more value from the few items I own than if they were watered down with hundreds of thousands of other items. And so I’m a lot more deliberate with the things I bring into my life. But I also realized that I’m not trying to be a monk or an ascetic. I like having some stuff that adds value to my life.
The key is to be reasonable but also to be honest with yourself. We can justify just about anything, but I don’t hold on to things that I want to purchase and I don’t hold on to them just in case. It’s like the worst excuse that I used to always have. I’m just gonna hold on to this old, you know, Blackberry charger just in case I need it someday, and some non-existent hypothetical future. And that let me hold on to a bunch of stuff I didn’t actually need, it was junk. But I can let go of it and add value to someone else’s life. Just because I don’t get value from it doesn’t mean that someone else won’t. So, I stopped selfishly clinging to those things that for so long I was selfishly clinging to.
And when I let go of it I figured, you know what, maybe someone else can use this. Maybe someone else can benefit from the things that I no longer find value in. The last thing I’ll tell you about that is, I also believe in that some limitations breed additional creativity. And I don’t think it really matters which pencil or pen that Stephen King wrote his last book with, right? What matters to him is that he’s using a pen or a pencil, but he doesn’t need all the additional instruments. It doesn’t take all of these extra special, top secret writing programs and apps and everything else to pen, you know, the next great novel.
It literally takes a pen to pen that next great novel. Some of the things might add value, but I think if we remove a lot of the things that we pretend to add value to our lives, we can always reintroduce those things in the future, whether it’s technology or physical possession, to see whether or not they do truly add value to our lives.
Nathan: I see, interesting. So, we have to work towards wrapping up, Joshua. But I’ve wrote down a ton of questions that I just wanna go fire at you, man. And it might be… And please, you know, if I’m asking them, please don’t take offense because it’s coming from just a place of curiosity, okay?
Nathan: So, one thing that I’ve noticed amongst extremely successful entrepreneurs, founders, is they’re extremely hungry. And that hunger is what, I guess, is a big part of that catalyst of them building, you know, a disruptive business or, you know, business that is making a big impact on the world or the number one or two in the industry. Do you think you can have that hunger, that’s the new… I hope you know what I’m describing. And live, I guess, a purposeful life, you know, with the essentials like with, you know, as a minimalist or an essentialism and still be happy?
Joshua: I think so. I’ll tell you, I don’t think happiness is the point. I think living a life of purpose or with this one I would call meaningful life is really the point. Aligning those short term actions with the long term values. And yes, certainly you can. I would say I’m not competitive anymore, that was one thing that was really difficult for me to let go of. But you can still have that hunger in a sense that I aspire to be the best version of myself. So, if I’m competing with anyone now, it’s my… You know, at 36 now, I’m competing with my 46-year-old self. And can I achieve what… Am I gonna look back in the mirror and say, “Wow, I did the best I could given my circumstances and the resources that I have.” And I know it’s not gonna be perfect but as long as I can look myself in the mirror and say, “I did the best I could do, I put my best foot forward. Then, of course, I give myself permission to be happy.”
Nathan: Do you think living your lifestyle or the lifestyle that you’re living, or having this way of living, do you ever think to yourself or what are your thoughts on, is it ever enough?
Joshua: Yeah. So, the word enough is important because that word is perspectival for each person, right? What’s enough for me? It is going to be different even for someone like Ryan who has a relatively similar life to me. And we run a website together, we have similar interests and desires, but he has different hobbies. So, he has some different things that will require him to acquire new things. And so, enough changes over time. And having too much is not good, but having not enough is also not good. You know, sort of this I lived both sides of the spectrum. I grew up really poor, I had no money. I made really good money in the corporate world.
And what I realized is that we have this whole platitude. Money doesn’t buy happiness. But guess what, neither does poverty. It has to do with something else. Our life can be augmented by the money or the things, or the experiences that we have. But it all really starts from what’s going on inside. And I think the thing we need to realize right now is just about anyone in your audience already has enough of the essentials. So, the key then is what are the things that are gonna augment your life? What’s going to make your life better, push for those, and let go of everything else.
Nathan: Okay. I got another one. One thing I mostly hear as well is one thing one of my mentors taught me, who runs a very, very successful business. You know, number or one or two, and he’s in three with that business, you know, nine figure plus. He said to me around, you know, it’s really good to reward yourself with items because it reminds you where you’ve come from. Maybe not the items, maybe first class flights, I don’t know. Definitely, would not fulfill kind of, you know, you spoke about, you know, do I really need this? Is this doing its job or does it bring value to my life? What are your thoughts on that?
Joshua: Yeah. I love experiences over things whenever possible. And so rewards can be nice. It can be sort of nice markers or benchmarks, and that doesn’t have to be a physical thing necessarily. Reward can be owning an experience. That can be a vacation or just a trip, or like you said, first class flight. That can be really beneficial. The other thing, sometimes I like consumables. You know, in fact when I’m buying gifts for someone else, I would try to gift them an experience or I’ll gift them a consumable, a nice bag of coffee or a bottle of wine, or a shared experience that we can have together, concert tickets and meals, something like that.
And I just had a birthday recently and my partner, Rebecca, she bought us, you know, a couple’s massage and that’s a great experience we’re able to have together. She benefited from it. She double benefited from it. She got the massage as well but she also got to make me happy, which I know makes her happy as well. And we care about the people closest to us. We obviously want them to be happy. Well, guess what, the person closest to you, absolutely closest to you is you. And, of course, you want to reward yourself for doing what you’re doing as long as you feel like you earned or you deserve that reward.
Nathan: Yeah, I love it. When it comes to, you know, yourself and you know how you said to me that you’re working in a job that you really didn’t like. Or you were trying to live a life of success that was perhaps pushed on you by society. What are your thoughts on, you know, I guess maybe for a big chunk of our audience that, I guess, you know, are trying to do the same in the sense that we, you know, want to develop and build our own companies to obviously bring value to other people’s lives. But at the same time, be successful and, you know, have a sense of financial freedom as well from the sense that, you know, we are in control of our own destiny. What are your thoughts on that side of things or, you know, Silicon Valley, raising capital, all that side of the world? What are your thoughts on that? Do you think people can be truly happy, like, or do you think that is still part of that, you know, societal kind of push to live a successful life?
Joshua: Yeah. I mean, I think we have to really define what success means to us, right? And I know that, I guess just a second ago… I was a competitive person in my 20’s. And I think there are two different types of competition and maybe more. There’s sort of friendly competition where it’s just, you know, a more contest or something. You know, playing basketball is friendly competition. And then there’s sort of the binary, I win, you lose everything kind of competition. And there’s probably a bit of a spectrum there but I think that can breed a lot of discontent. You know, I live out in Montana now and I often go to the sauna with some Native American tribes.
And they are really school knit on a few… And I’m just on a different mindset really. Two different ways to think. And one of them to me, so we’re just talking about how Americans are so competitive. And he said, “You know, our tribe believe that competition is a mental illness.” And so we don’t really understand like you win, I lose. Like anywhere in our tribe, if you win, I win. If I win, you win. And the person who wants me to lose at something is mentally ill. And they said it’s how it is in their culture. Now, I wouldn’t take it to that extreme but it was at least a different perspective. And I enjoy surrounding myself with some of these different perspectives. They, at least, let me look at something like competition and being number one in the industry or wherever else.
Those things can be great. They can make us feel good. But when all of our self-worth and success is tied up in being number one, then what happens when you’re number two, or number three, or number five? It used to be the number five would have been great for you. But now, you’re depressed and getting ready to jump off a building. And that’s not a recipe for success in my book. You know, for me, success is a lot more to do with am I growing as an individual? And am I able to contribute to other people in a meaningful way?
Nathan: I love that perspective. Thank you. So, final question or two last questions. The first one is, for our audience, you know, aspiring novice, even some super successful entrepreneurs or founders in, you know, “outer society,” what would your recommendation be for them to, I guess, maybe not necessarily go full kind of adopting a minimalist lifestyle or mindset, but perhaps using this way of life and the way of thinking about things to benefit them. What would your advice be? And then, lastly, you know, where’s the best place people can find out more about your work?
Joshua: Yeah, certainly. My friend, a guy named Rob Bell often told this little parable of there’s a first century rabbi who’s travelling from a nearby village. And he reaches this fork in the road. And he’s a little bit tipsy, you know, he’s been drinking, he just had dinner in this nearby village and he’s walking home. When he gets to that fork in the road, he knows that if he goes left he thinks, he’s not sure but maybe the left path, he’ll end up in this Roman outpost and he doesn’t wanna end up there because the Roman soldiers would stop them. And it’s the wrong way to go because the right path will take him home, and he’ll find his way home.
And so he goes left thinking that’s the way home. And in a few miles, he ends up at this Roman outpost and there’s this guard who yells down to him. “Who are you and what are you doing here?” And the rabbi just sort of looks up at him. And the guard yells down to him again. “Who are you and what are you doing here?” And the rabbi said, “How much are they paying you?” The guard just sort of looks at him puzzled. He goes, “No, seriously, how much are they paying you?” And the guard says, “Oh, they’re paying $100 or whatever the equivalent is, in the Dinar or whatever the currency of the time was.” And the rabbi says, “Well, I will pay you twice that if you come to my house every morning and ask me that same question. Who are you and what are you doing here?”
And so, that’s my advice. If I had any advice, I would say ask that question and be able to answer it. Who are you and what are you doing here? We’ve all been given one life, exactly one life here on earth. And, man, we better act accordingly.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. I love that story, man. That’s really powerful.
Joshua: Thank you. And if you wanna find me, I’m pretty easy to find. We’re online @theminimalists on all the social medias and at minimalist.com. We have the Minimalist podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you get podcasts. And our documentary is called Minimalism, a documentary about the important things. It’s on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, all those fun places. And then we’re in the middle of a tour right now doing 40 cities in North America. It’s called the Less is Now Tour. All the details to that are on our website. Ryan and I give an in-depth talk about minimalism. We record a live version of the Minimalist podcast. Answer a bunch of questions. Dish out a bunch of free hugs while we’re out there on tour. And we’re in North America now, we’re gonna do Australia, and hopefully Europe next year, so stay tuned for that. All the details are over at the minimalist.com.
Nathan: Awesome. Well, look, thank you so much for your time, Joshua. That was incredible conversation, man. I really appreciate it. And I’m gonna stop playing that game I think.
Joshua: Yeah. I’m really grateful for your time, Nathan. Thank you so much for chatting with me today.
Nathan: Yeah, you’re welcome. Thank you as well. I really appreciate your time. I hope you have a great tour and I’ll speak to you soon.
Joshua: All right. Take care, brother.
Key Resources From Our Interview With Joshua Fields Millburn
- Checkout The Minimalists
- Learn more about Joshua Fields Millburn
- Checkout Joshua Fields Millburn’s Books
- Connect with Joshua Fields Millburn on Linkedin
- Follow Joshua Fields Millburn on Twitter
- Follow Joshua Fields Millburn on Instagram